Next Connectionalism

by Chris Ritter

When the United Methodist bishops of the African Central Conferences issued their statement this week, many in the Church focused on what the document had to say about marriage and human sexuality.  Equally significant, however, is what the bishops had to say about church unity.  While calling the church to biblical faithfulness, they affirmed they will not allow the church to be torn apart over homosexuality.

I read this as a strong indication that the sizable African General Conference voting bloc will not be amenable to any plans that include schism, exit strategies, or holidays from the trust clause as a means to solve our disagreements.  Our African brothers and sisters expect us to live together for the sake of mission.  As one African district superintendent I spoke with recently said, “Division only makes us weaker.”

The statement from Africa makes more apparent what I have been arguing for some time: Formal schism sanctioned by GC2016 will not happen.  If there is a separation, it will be unofficial, messy, piecemeal, and litigious.  As such, it will not be an attractive option for the vast majority.  It is time we realize that whatever we are in, we are in it together.  We need to stop asking if the church is going to stay connected and start asking the better question:  What is the future shape of our connection?

I believe any adequate solution to our divisions over sexuality should also help us address the more important issue of our vitality as a movement.  Our dysfunction is a coin with two sides.  We lock people with incompatible worldviews together structurally in ways that cause us to struggle for power instead of focusing outward in ministry.  At the same time the artificial barriers in our structure prevent like-minded people from collaborating together, robbing us of our creative capacity.  The heat we are feeling in the church is friction from an engine that needs more than just the oil of goodwill.  It needs a complete overhaul.

I would respectfully caution my fellow delegates not to be overly distracted by several marginal issues that can do little to interrupt our 45-year trajectory of decline.  If we are not careful, we will deal only with the periphery:

PERIPHERAL ISSUE:  PLAN UMC

For some delegates, GC2016 presents a second chance to enact a version of “Plan UMC” to downsize and better hold accountable our general boards.  While I agree that our bureaucracy has become bloated and dysfunctional, I do not share the optimism that reforming it will meaningfully impact our denominational trajectory.  A United Methodist News Service headline asked last week:  “Could reorganizing agencies boost church vitality?”  It seems to me the answer is a decided “no”, except perhaps for potential financial savings that could be directed to other ministries.  Reforming our bureaucracy is more a matter of faithful stewardship of resources than a strategy for turnaround.  General agencies, while they can and do perform necessary functions, are not levers for renewal.  I am not against the new Plan UMC(2), I just hope we don’t feel we have significantly renewed our church by enacting it.

PERIPHERAL ISSUE:  “WE DISAGREE”

Expect a renewed effort at GC 2016 to ensconce into our Book of Discipline a statement that United Methodists disagree with one another over issues of human sexuality.  While the statement is obviously true, it is insufficient.  Traditionalists reject it not because of what it says, but what it doesn’t say.  They are suspicious of “we disagree” because it invites each group to develop their own set of implications flowing from this.  It is viewed as a transitional step toward an undisclosed endgame.  This actually intensifies the tension in our system rather than neutralizes it.  Further, it cannot restore unity, end the conflict, or spark synergy.  If we are going to state that we disagree, we must at least agree on what we are going to do about it.  Ministry moves at the speed of trust.  Without it, we are swimming in oatmeal.

PERIPHERAL ISSUES:  THE LOCAL OPTION, THE CT PROPOSAL & CUP PLAN

There will also be a movement to allow decisions about human sexuality to be made at the local and annual conference levels.  Both the Connectional Table and Hamiltonian plans have elements of localization.   My critique of both of these proposals is that localizing an issue is a far cry from solving it. This will actually exacerbate our divisions in moderate conferences.  We are passing our hot potato to the very folks already struggling to do ministry together.   As much as we may dislike the picketing and demonstrations about human sexuality at General Conference, at least these are not happening on the front lawns of our churches.  Those who propose referring our sexuality debate to the annual conferences need to think long and hard about the word “annual.”

The CT Plan removes, on a church-wide basis, chargeable offenses for conducting same sex weddings and for pastors being self-avowed practicing homosexuals.  Given our commitment to open itinerancy, a single annual conference cannot operate with dual understandings of homosexuality and ministry.  If a pastor is ordained, he/she/zie can and will serve anywhere, including roles of superintendence.  No matter how sensitively an annual conference does their job, someone is going to be forced into a violation of conscience under these proposals.  Decisions about ministry standards must, for the good of the church, be made above the annual conference level.  (The jurisdiction happens to be the only judicatory layer between the general church and the annual conference).

If the Connectional Table Plan represents what the most the progressive wing in our church could realistically hope to accomplish at GC 2016, its conservative counterpart is the CUPlan.  It calls for uniform enforcement of our current rules, changes in our just resolution process, new methods of holding bishops accountable, and a mechanism for those who disagree to leave without penalty.  While there are elements of the plan that I could support, this does not provide a solution to our struggle unless hundreds of thousands of United Methodists take the provided exit or decide to shut up.  They won’t.  And, as stated above, I believe many Africans would vote against any provision for dividing the church through even a voluntary escape hatch.

REAL CHANGE

I have argued elsewhere that our divisions need to be addressed on the jurisdictional level.  Renewal, however, can only happen closer to the ground.   “The local church provides the most significant arena through which disciple-making occurs” (¶201).  “The annual conference is the basic body in the Church…”(¶33.)  Any plan for the future of the church that does not impact the interplay between the local church and the annual conference has little hope for impacting our generational trajectory of decline.

I have proposed “Five Rules for a Flat(ter) UMC” that would serve to both neutralize our divisions and provide fresh connectional relationships capable of positioning ourselves to more nimbly respond to the move of the Holy Spirit:

FIRST, let annual conference borders overlap geographically.  Our current system is replete with rigid geographic boundaries that in no way serve our mission.  Missionary conferences, however, are allowed to overlap with other conferences.  We need to empower more of this so local churches don’t feel trapped by the accident of their location.  Conferences should be allowed to do ministry anywhere they can be effective.  They should work to be attractive to local churches and provide a good value for apportionment dollars assessed.

SECOND, local churches may join any UM annual conference willing to service their area and they may reconsider their conference affiliation periodically.   Conferences should be made to demonstrate their value based on the service they provide to the local church.  Local congregations should have more choice into the connectional relationships that best enable their mission.  Conference lines currently divide metropolitan areas where United Methodists could otherwise helpfully collaborate together in a unified witness.  I expect that multiple annual conference options would tend to emerge only in those areas where this might prove helpful.

THIRD, annual conferences may join whatever jurisdiction they wish and may revisit their jurisdictional affiliation every four years.  There is little reason for jurisdictions to be geographic in nature.  A jurisdiction is simply a team of annual conferences led by a particular team of bishops.  If there is a jurisdiction that might better enable the ministry of an annual conference, the conference should have the power to join it.

FOURTH, clergy and ministry standards of the general church may be adapted by the jurisdictions with a 2/3 majority vote of their jurisdictional conference.  This provision effectively solves many of our divisions over human sexuality.  We already have two jurisdictions that are in an official state of defiance to our rules.  When paired with the second provision, this measure would prevent any clergy or congregation from being forced into a violation of conscience.  Jurisdictional conferences could retain the current standards of the BOD, choose a progressive approach, or develop some sort of middle way.  Annual conferences could opt into any jurisdiction whose ministry rules fit with their ministry objectives.  Jurisdictions would have incentive to demonstrate their value to the ministry of the annual conference.

FIFTH, if a jurisdiction falls below five episcopal areas, it is disbanded and its constituent annual conferences would each join another jurisdiction.  This will prevent any jurisdiction from being too out of step with the larger UMC.  Whatever standards the jurisdiction adopts, it must work for multiple annual conferences.  Bishops would have new incentive to make sure the jurisdiction is fruitful in making disciples.  Over time, we might either end up with one, big U.S. jurisdiction or develop more than one way to fruitfully be United Methodist.  Bishops of discontinued jurisdictions would be appointed by the Council of Bishops to other tasks (assisting other bishops, serving as bishops-in-residence, pastoring churches, etc.).

THE NEXT CONNECTIONALISM:  LESS COERCION, MORE COLLABORATION

I am strongly encouraged by my conference to be part of a United Methodist clergy covenant group.  I choose to be part of one that is fairly diverse, theologically speaking.    I have some colleagues who choose groups that are more homogeneous.  I am thankful that I am not told which group to join.  I would likely come to resent it.  Assigning groups based on geography or other factors would be counterproductive.  Self-selected relationships within the rubric of the United Methodist connection provide for both synergy and meaningful accountability.  It is time to apply this concept to the annual conference and jurisdictional levels of our church.

AND BY THE WAY…

This new connectionalism also provides a work-around for one of the most pressing problems facing the UMC:  Clergy effectiveness.  The Judicial Council struck down on constitutional grounds GC2012’s effort to eliminate guaranteed appointments for clergy.  My proposal retains guaranteed appointments, but allows local congregations to join any conference that is willing to supervise them.  If there is a more effective clergy pool available, congregations can opt into it.  This provides fresh incentive for conferences to use the means currently available to reform or remove ineffective clergy.  Clergy can transfer from conference to conference as they do presently.  I include a legislative provision that guarantees the right of transfer to any clergy that feels the ministry rules they are serving under violate their conscience.

In the U.S., the UMC will discontinue many annual conferences over the next generation due to demographic trends.  Our present method of doing so is to merge one dying conference with another, a strategy that has never produced a turn-around.  Would it not be preferable to allow healthy systems to gradually overtake unhealthy ones?  I have authored legislation that governs this process fairly.

CONCLUSION

I hope delegates to General Conference 2016 will come seeking not to win the game, but to change it.  We need to catch a vision for not only solving our divisions but also making changes that allow new ministry relationships to blossom where they really matter.  We need a new Connectionalism.  Our system would seem flatter if it allowed for meaningful choices and began honoring collaboration over coercion.  The Five Rules I propose represent a new way of doing business for the UMC.  I have translated them into legislation called The Organic Jurisdictional Solution. It allows for a gradual, organic reordering of our church into a new form of collaborative connectionalism.  I encourage you to take a look at it and let me know what you think.

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